Like everyone else, I have some thoughts on the recent SCOTUS decision, so I’m sharing them here on my blog, whence they will be piped out into various social media, judged, weighed, and found wanting. Brace for contact.
My first observation is that the acronym “SCOTUS” turned neologism— “Scotus”— sounds like a disease. “Yeah, Bob has Scotus, and it’s terminal. They’re moving him into hospice.” This seems rather apropos. The same could be said of “POTUS.” I guess one shouldn’t be surprised when one lives the age of Lol, Omg, and Icymi.
On to my TL;DR commentary…
America is a modern nation-state. She is not the Church. She is not “God’s New Israel,” nor ought we to assume that she is in any sense chosen by Him for exceptional blessing or cursing— only regular, ordinary blessing and cursing. God didn’t send His Son and shed His own blood to redeem America or any other nation-state. Nations qua nations do not and indeed cannot repent and believe in the Gospel. When you get right down to it, there cannot really be any such thing as a “Christian nation”, pace Constantine. “Christian” properly refers to the Church and her economia, as well as to her members, each of whom is named “Christian” in baptism. It does not and it cannot properly refer to anything else.
However, when our fellow Christians lament that “America was a Christian nation”, and that she is one no longer, we should be sensitive to this. Christianity used to be honored in the public square in America. Some people are old enough to remember this— I am not; also, I grew up in Oregon. True, in the days of yore Americans differed as to how God’s law should govern public life, but the belief that God was the ultimate source of law, that morality was absolute and connatural, etc., was certainly widespread, even though various radical intellectual trends had been percolating among the intellectual elites since… well, forever.
It’s a cliche, but the nineteen-sixties did see a radical shift in public mores. Call it punctuated equilibrium, if you want. The counterculture made marked inroads into the mainstream culture, and the poles began to change in significant ways. I’ve heard it argued by sincere Christians that there were some good things about this transit. I’m not going to summarize their arguments, which, generally speaking, I think are poor. Whatever the case may be, I’m not going to be treating that question, or otherwise doing history in reverse, postulating about inevitable shifts, reading tea-leaves, etc. I just want to acknowledge, for the record, that it’s easy for us young folks to engage in cynical posturing in the wake of events such as the recent SCOTUS ruling and say things like, “Well, nothing has really changed”— (sip microbrew)— “It’s not like the U.S. ever really was a ‘Christian Nation’,” and then dismiss the lamentations of our elders as so much idealizing of Leave It To Beaver. We shouldn’t do that, for lots of reasons. Think about it.
I have to say, though, the SCOTUS ruling has affected me more than I was expecting it would. I’m pretty darn cynical about American politics post…well…post-1776, but I really do feel like a Rubicon was crossed last Friday, and I need to be honest about that. I woke up feeling depressed on Saturday. “It’s crazy,” I told my wife before we had even gotten out of bed, “but the Christian objection to gay marriage has now been statutorily classed with objecting to the end of Jim Crow. It’s official.”
How do we now live? The question itself is a bit cliché, but I think it’s the properly basic one to be asking.
First off, I think we need to remember the Two Kingdoms. The fact that there are Two Kingdoms— or that the Kingdom of God has a dual aspect— should be obvious: the Parousia has not happened; heaven and earth are not yet united; God still causes rain to fall on the evil and the good, and He allows the law of consequence to operate for the good and the harm of all. As Christians, we live with the mass of mankind in the kingdom of His left hand, wherein God rules by His Law through the agency of the magistrate, who is His servant (whether he recks His rod or not), who rewards the good, punishes the evil, and (theoretically) protects the innocent (cf. Romans 13). The magistracy, Martin Luther reminds us, derives from parental authority: “All authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents” (LC I.141; quick-and-dirty factorial: garbage in, at the bottom, in the estate of the family; garbage out, at the top, in the estate of government). Unlike the worldly, however, Christians also live in the kingdom of God’s right hand, wherein He rules by the Gospel, uniting the hearts of the faithful to Himself through mercy and love without any merit on their part, sanctifying them and keeping them with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. We are dual-citizens.
The Two Kingdoms are interpenetrating; they are distinct but not alienated from one another, just as the Law and the Gospel are distinct words from God but not alienated from each other, for in God “there is no variableness or shadow of turning” (St. James 1:17). Indeed, as St. Augustine contends in The City of God, the Church, which is the City of God, is pilgriming in, with, and among the City of Man.
The Law applies equally to all people, individually and collectively, in the sense that all live under the Law— it is the inescapable cosmic fabric of existence. The Gospel also applies to all people, but due to the stubbornness of men’s hearts, not all live under the “great, broad heaven of grace and forgiveness” (LW 22:122, Commentary on St. John’s Gospel). The Gospel is the greatest gift ever given to mankind, for it is Christ Himself, but in matters of earthly concourse in the Kingdom of the Left, or the City of Man, it is not the basis for common human flourishing— the Law is. “To divide Law and Gospel means to place the Gospel in heaven, and to keep the Law on earth,” Blessed Martin Luther writes in his Great Galatians Commentary,
to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the Law earthly; to put as much difference between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law, as there is difference between day and night. If it is a question of faith or conscience, ignore the Law entirely. If it is a question of works, then lift high the lantern of works and the righteousness of the Law. If your conscience is oppressed with a sense of sin, talk to your conscience. Say: “You are now groveling in the dirt. You are now a laboring ass. Go ahead, and carry your burden. But why don’t you mount up to heaven? There the Law cannot follow you!” Leave the ass burdened with laws behind in the valley. But your conscience, let it ascend with Isaac into the mountain.
In civil life obedience to the law is severely required. In civil life Gospel, conscience, grace, remission of sins, Christ Himself, do not count, but only Moses with the lawbooks. If we bear in mind this distinction, neither Gospel nor Law shall trespass upon each other. The moment Law and sin cross into heaven, i.e., your conscience, kick them out. On the other hand, when grace wanders unto the earth, i.e., into the body, tell grace: “You have no business to be around the dreg and dung of this bodily life. You belong in heaven.” (1535 Commentary on Galatians; 2:14)
The Law provides order for human flourishing, yes. But in so doing— that is, in its necessary curbing of the passions of men so that the world does not descend into utter chaos— it shows every man that he is a miserable, lawless creature. If you run into an electric fence in the dark, it not only stops you dead in your tracks, it lets you know that you weren’t keeping your wits about you; you didn’t put the brakes on yourself, so it put them on for you— and it hurt. Thus does the Law stop every mouth, holding it accountable to God, the lawmaker and lawgiver. In fact, we say that it “kills.” To the Old Adam who clings to us New Men, who have been made new in Christ, it is the harbinger of the death that we all must die ere we are resurrected; to the unregenerate it is the harbinger of the Second Death, which awaits those have exchanged the truth of God for the Lie.
Still and all, civic righteousness, i.e., external conformity to the Law written upon the heart, is something that all who live in the Kingdom of the Left can render to some extent, for the Fall into sin did not leave man without reason, indistinct from animals. However, our own actual sins can so severely corrupt this capacity in us individually that it is virtually useless, functionally obliterated, etc. Sin-sick individuals reinforce their own and each other’s depravity in a statutorily lawless environment— say, in a country in which infants are legally murdered in the womb; where not just the internet, but really all media are, well… “for porn”; where gangs and police vie to outdo each other’s corruption and lawlessness. Whenever and wherever there is no curb against actions which in prior generations were criminalized on account of their obvious social destructiveness, you get cultures which are not just made up of sinners, for all societies have been made up of sinners, but cultures of sin, where sin is publicly celebrated and legally protected, if not positively mandated.
When I say “culture”, think in biological terms. Think of petri-dishes of gelatin in a dingy lab, spawning slimy colonies of bacteria at an exponentially increasing rate. It is in a culture of sin— wherein the sinful heart of man does not encounter even the bare external constraint of the state, which the latter ought to impose at the behest of mere reason— that anarchy becomes a real possibility, followed by totalitarianism, back and forth, back and forth. Dionysian frenzy followed by Apollonian restraint, ad infinitum. Hard left, hard right, with technicians, social scientists, and bureaucrats ever at the helm. A culture of sin can bring a nation to approach a sort of bestial asymptote, where the minds of the many are so darkened that they are functionally living like animals, utterly enslaved to their
I think that it’s where we’re headed. Having exchanged the natural knowledge of the Law for the Lie, the new moral majority— and make no mistake: it is the majority— that rules this former republic have now successfully channeled the darkness of their given-over minds into the U.S. Code. What was left of the merciful civil curb of God’s Law with respect to the creation ordinance of marriage is now gone. It’s official. It may have been “one vote” by Justice Kennedy, but his decision was a coin-toss only in theory: this is the ruling America wanted. Kennedy merely gave flesh, bones, and a vote to the Zeitgeist. Read his opinion— do you really think he was on the fence? As Aaron D. Wolf wrote last Friday, “Today’s Supreme Court ruling will not draw down Divine judgment. Today’s Supreme Court ruling is God’s judgment.” God is simply allowing this nation to reap in its laws what it has sown by its culture. We raised these crops ourselves, we did. The Supremes just announced that it was time to bring the sheaves into the barn. Now comes the harvest party. “And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6). Let the wild rumpus start.
But lest we Christians think that the Church merely suffers the sins of the world in this matter, God gives us this word from the mouth of St. Paul:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man— you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself— that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:1-5)
How long has the Church looked liked the world when it comes to the public institution of marriage? For so very long. “For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Yes, we have practiced the very same things. We are the man, the sinner in the parable of the prophet Nathan. He stares at us, the Church, a pointing finger quivering in righteous rage.
Among us Christians divorce is embraced with practical exuberance and often met with no pastoral censure; unrestricted contraception, which all Christians everywhere condemned in the same breath as abortion until the early twentieth century, is exercised as a mere matter of preference. The marriage covenant is no longer recognized even among us Christians as a lifelong, irrevocable, procreative union. Accordingly, sexuality has been denatured, completely uncoupled from marriage and procreation. We no longer see marriage as being about children in any fundamental way, but about some some baptized Maslovian self-actualization. (The canard which suggests that those who are infertile due to barrenness or age would be excluded from marriage if it is defined as “naturally procreative” is dealt with succinctly here.) Accordingly, the sexes, too, have been denatured: feminism, which hails Eve’s share of the Curse as a blessing, runs amok even in “conservative” churches.
The vast majority of Protestant churches have eaten like pigs from the trough of contraception and no-fault divorce since the sixties and seventies, respectively. “Hey guys,” says pig-farmer State, “since you seem to be enjoying cheap, sterile ‘marriage’ just as much or more as the other pigs, how about ‘gay marriage’?” We look up from our gorging, stare, blink a bit. What is he talking about? “Really? You guys don’t have a thundering Jeremiad for me? No ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ on this one?” Uh, no? Why would we? … oh, wait a second … yes, we do! You can’t do that! That’s disgusting! What a disgusting mockery of the institution! Why, it will destroy marriage! What a… what a… wait a second. He can’t hear us. We’ve become pigs. Pigs can’t talk. And, besides, we’ve got the slop all over our faces. And now we realize that the farmer is laughing. He was kidding! He wasn’t actually expecting an answer from pigs! Here he comes with a fresh bucket. Oh, well. It’s probably not that bad once you get used to it.
After all, what’s the harm in one more sterile arrangement based upon two de-gendered personae who are crazy-in-love and see children as more or less extrinsic to their crazy-in-loveness? That was the Obergefell argument in a nutshell, to which five “justices” replied, “Yeah! Srsly. Like, wtf is the harm in that?? #lovewins.”
I don’t know the legal history well enough to know what kind of fight Christians put up in the courts when the birth-control pill was legalized for married persons in Griswold v. Connecticut, or when the same right to deliberately sterile sex was extended to the unmarried in Eisenstadt v. Baird. I do, however, find it rather interesting that the first no-fault divorce law was signed by that hero of the American religious right, then-governor of California and future U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, providing precedent for similar laws in all fifty states (New York was the last, receiving its crown of glory in 2010). Whatever hue and cry was raised by Christians at these “watershed moments” is now immaterial: today we Christians retain an ethic which, as Tyler Blanski puts it, could fairly be described as “protohomosexual.” Writes Blanski:
Having already overturned the social and moral pressures of the community and erected a dating system not unlike civil war, having already privatized marriage and turned it into a statement about his freedom and erotic preference— “This is my choice, my love!”— the protohomosexual closes the curtains of his bedchamber to find only another obstacle to his happiness: fertility.
Long before anyone dreamed of normalizing sodomy, heterosexual ideology contended that sex should be first and foremost recreation. The only problem with this contention is that sex is naturally creative. But as heterosexual ideology evolved, so did technology: with latex, the right surgical procedures and chemicals, it became possible to believe that sex is firstly recreation.
Don’t misunderstand what it is being said here— by me, that is: the sin of lust which is at the root of divorce and contraception can never be cast out in this life, for it inheres in our very flesh. “Lust” (or the sanitized “covetousness”) is basic to all sin (Romans 7:7-12). We carry it with us until we die and are resurrected. We can’t not lust. This is the reality of original sin in each one of us.
However, it does not follow from the fact of original sin that the Church doesn’t know which way is up in its public confession before the world in doctrine and practice. When sin is practiced and tolerated, even promoted and ensconced, what can we call it? I call it demonic. A body possessed by a demon has taken leave of reason. Sins which now receive homage as virtues, these I call demons. How metaphorical this is I cannot quite tell.
The aforementioned demons have gained a place of standing in the Church. Like those which Christ’s disciples were unable to cast out from the child (St. Mark 9:29), they will not be cast out from our midst except through generations of prayer, fasting, and bearing fruit worthy of repentance, instead of the rancid fruit of this world. No, they will not be cast out by our prayer and fasting ex opere operato, but by God in Christ Jesus, Who promises grace and blessing in this world and the next, through prayer (the Holy Liturgy of the Church, the devotional life of the home) and fasting (living lives of self-control, “because the days are evil”, cf. Ephesians 5). In all of this the Holy Spirit works in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
How necessary is it that these demons are purged from our midst? Wrong question, but we can answer it anyway: very necessary— at some point it gets to be a matter of simple math. More to the point, though, we are called to holiness. God who justified us also sanctified us, setting us apart from the world and renovating us (and He is sanctifying us, present tense). As Christians we do not believe in a big, indulgent God-the-Uncle who spoils us with presents when we see him once a year; no, there is no such God. We confess that God is Our Father, and that because He is our Father, He disciplines us as sons. “In your struggle against sin,” writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood;
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by Him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom His father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:4-8)
These demons will fight back. They always have, and they always will. The struggle is constant; we will never get to coast. St. Paul describes the entire life of faith as a race, a contest, and a struggle. If the Apostle had to beat his body to keep it in submission his whole life through, do we think we can do less and not be disqualified?
Then there is the matter of our witness to the world. We must mark well, upon pain of losing the Divine favor, that a church which has shirked the “discipline of sons” has nothing to give the beggar whom the culture of sin has chewed up and spit out. “Oh, come now,” we might say. “We have ‘Word and Sacrament’!” Do we mean that, or are we reciting a slogan? The broken will not come close enough to be impressed with our paper orthodoxy if we look exactly like what they are trying to escape. Nor does a church which has shirked the discipline of sons have any sustaining lifeblood, any Jeremiad, any “thus sayeth the Lord” to deliver to the sick culture. Such “churches” have no true martyria, for through their prostitution they have become one with the world in body, sharing its contagion. A patient cannot get a blood-transfusion from his own leg. The Church catholic will shed such “churches”; they will be threshed and winnowed from Her by the Sower Himself.
“By their fruits you will know them”— it’s about time we just said that outright, without qualification, letting it be as terrifying as it ought to be. “Believers, likewise, should not be idle,” the Formula of Concord states (sounding rather pietistic to some ears, no doubt);
…and much less resist the impulse of God’s Spirit, but should exercise themselves in all Christian virtues, in all godliness, modesty, temperance, patience, brotherly love, and give all diligence to make their calling and election sure, in order that they may doubt the less concerning it, the more they experience the power and strength of the Spirit within them. (FC SD XI.73)
It is the doom of every Christian to fall, to sin, and to repent and believe the Gospel, ere he dies and is resurrected in glory. It is quite another thing, and a deadly lie, to say that the Church of Christ is fated to look no different than the world, that the only thing differentiating Christians from unbelievers is notional faith squirrelled away in their skulls. The Church is a congregation of sinners, yes; she is not, however, a congregation of the unrepentant: “those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness. We are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law” (Apology V [IV II].227).
If our lives and works are evil, if our estimation of God’s Law is no different than that of the world— i.e., that Divine Law is at best just some idealistic noumenal standard that has no bearing on “real life”— how can we claim to have faith in His Gospel? What, then, is Christ saving us from? We cannot despise God’s Law while claiming to love His Gospel. Such a “faith” cannot save us, for it is not faith, but the very darkened mind of the world and its infernal prince that holds sway in the many “churches” which have already exchanged the truth of God for the Lie. If we prize the false Epicurean delusion of faith without works, if we make light of our fleshliness, we, too, will go the way of all flesh. After we crucify anew the Lord of Glory, we will turn and fall headlong into the open field, our bellies bursting asunder, our entrails scattering. The sun of pure doctrine will shine elsewhere, and we will become a byword.
I woke up depressed, as I said above. Depressed and a bit scared, honestly. Life in the untied states just got a bit more complicated. But as dark as the days ahead are for the nation, the days are never dark for the Church, for she is the “city [which] has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day— and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:23-25). The Church, not any nation-state, is the “city set upon on a hill”, sending her light as a beacon to the darkened world, which light is the good works which flow from faith (St. Matthew 5:14-16). The Bridegroom soon will call us. Let us keep the lamps lit.
I would like to share some choice words from the great Anglican bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Charles C. Grafton, preached at the dawn of the twentieth century, which are both eloquent and apropos:
The world goes on progressing towards the rise of that despotic power of the final Anti-Christ, who, in the name of material progress and social science, promises to achieve by force what only grace can do, and who will make war upon the saints.
Oh, the coming terror and the woe! Oh, the trials of that coming century of blood! Already the second beast ariseth out of the earth. A worldwide modern civilization takes the place of the Roman. It hath all the power of the first beast. It doeth great wonders. It brings down fire from heaven and works mighty miracles of power. None can advance to profit or honor but they must first receive its sign in the hand or forehead, and be branded as its slave, to think as it thinks and work as it bids.
The world and the apostate Christianity, rejecting the Trinity, the Incarnation, the deity of Christ, His vicarious atonement, His resurrection in the flesh, His Church and altar, and priesthood, and Sacraments, and inspired Word, grows more boastful and triumphant.
Do the powers of heaven seem to be shaken? Do the stars fall? Does the sign of the cross of persecution begin to appear? Then lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh. As the world waxes evil the Church becomes purified. She feels the nearer presence of her Lord’s approach. She has all along known He would be true to His word. She discerns His footsteps. She feels a glow as the cloud which hides Him begins to fade. Her heart quickens and her pulses beat. The witnesses are seen, full of the resurrection and ascended life, upon their feet. Ere the great final world’s earthquake, as many behold they will repent and give glory to God. The Church already kindles with the missionary zeal as of another Pentecost. She waits but to break forth in the fulness of the revealed glory of the new creation into the song of Moses and the Lamb.
Blessed is it, dear and Right Reverend Fathers, and you, priests of the altar, and all ye members of Christ by baptism, anointed as kings and priests unto God, to live in such times as these—times when you can bear witness by your lives to the Catholic faith, when you can do great things for Christ and His Church.— Naught else, ye know, is so entirely worth the doing. Naught else will stand when He appeareth.— Times when some of you may win the crown of martyrdom…
A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us. Angels and saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors, doctors, religious, are looking on. Those, like St. Simon and St. Jude, whom we are bound on this day especially to honor; those who have won their crowns by martyrdom; those who have illuminated the Church by their doctrine, or enriched it by their alms and labors; those who have, on beds of pain or hidden trials, filled up the measure of Christ’s sufferings; those who have taught, as mothers or consecrated sisters, the faith to little children; and one with the multitudinous and the sainted host as they long and wait… praise and plead responsively to the mighty impulse of the exulting throb of joy in the heart of Jesus as His appearing draws nigh.
Respond we also to that divine impulse. Recognize the apocalyptic warning. Redeem the time. Come ye out from the world. Be ye separated from it. Living in it, be no longer of it… Rise up to a nobler, higher, God-inspired life. Be men for God, be men of God… He who knows thee, loves thee, and thou canst trust that love… Let heaven’s courts ring anew this day with joyous hosannas over returning penitents and advancing saints, and be ye consecrated from henceforth and forever— consecrated unto holiness— consecrated unto the Lord.